You might have heard of the infamous “intermediate plateau” in language learning. After a long time of seeing great improvements in your French, you feel like your progress slows to a crawl.
In academic terms, the intermediate plateau roughly corresponds to CEFR levels B1/B2. By this point you're good at grammar in general, you know a reasonable number of complex words and expressions, and you can strike up a conversation with somebody. But... (wild generalisations to follow...)
... Basically, you still won't feel (or be treated) as though you're quite fluent. It might feel like you can communicate, but you can't chat. And no matter how much time you spend going back over your lessons and revising your flashcards, you won't feel like you're getting any better.
Nothing, really. This is a temporary pit stop on the path of all language learners. (Although some people might notice and worry more than others!)
What's happened is that you've learned most of the important stuff — the stuff that makes up the bulk of everyday communication. Well done!
But in any language, there is a core of "super important, super useful" language — and then there is the rest. Now that you've mastered the important stuff, you need to put down your French course, apps and textbooks, and start using your new skills to branch out and explore.
Most of the time, the intermediate plateau can be hard to escape for two reasons:
So what can you do?
If you've been glued to your French courses and apps up until this point, you'll probably find that your vocabulary is pretty limited.
It turns out that French speakers don't just spend all their time ordering coffee, booking hair appointments, and talking about their occupations.
They tell their neighbour about the tomato plants they sowed in spring that are growing too slow. They read about poisonous snakes in popular science magazines. They were once teenagers, speaking teen slang that they occasionally bring up again as adults because it’s ironic.
Basically, they have a lifetime of vocabulary based on a diverse range of interests.
So unless you can move to a French-speaking location right away, the best way to expand your knowledge beyond the scope of your language learning tools is to bring French into your own everyday life.
If you do gardening as a hobby, start following a couple of popular French-speaking gardeners on YouTube (like this one). If you love reading popular science magazines, start reading the closest French equivalent you can find (like this one).
Try to find as many opportunities as you can to live parts of your life in French. If you can do that, you'll naturally start to pick up a wider range of vocabulary.
The way you speak with your friends likely isn't the same way you'd speak to a small child, or a grandparent, or a doctor, or a police officer, right? You'll use a different style of language depending on the situation, and who you're talking to.
In linguistics, this is called register. If you've been mostly learning from a French course or other materials specifically designed for French learners, you've probably developed a pretty "neutralised" register (not too formal, not too informal — just completely neutral).
But this vanilla French register is sometimes just not appropriate for the situation. You wouldn't use it to speak to a baby. You wouldn't use it to speak to a queen. And you wouldn't use it with your best friend or the guys down at the pub. Being able to switch your register to match the situation is one of the keys fitting in with other French speakers and moving forward from the intermediate plateau.
The first step is to notice how people talk in different situations. See how close friends talk to each other, compared to when they're meeting strangers for the first time. See how parents talk to children, or how pet owners speak to their pets! Now notice how a politician speaks.
TV and movies can be good for seeing how people speak in a wide variety of situations, but remember to keep actively using your new language — it's pretty easy to spend a lot of time just passively absorbing language through reading and listening, but this isn't as effective. A conversation exchange partner can be really helpful here.
A lot of the time this "plateau" is framed as a negative place to be, but that negativity is really just your own perception. You feel like you're not progressing anymore, and it starts to worry you.
Another way to look at the intermediate plateau is to recognise it as an accomplishment. You’ve successfully climbed up the side of this mountain. You’ve done the hard work to reach this point, and develop these skills that allow you to navigate the French-speaking world.
Now is the time to enjoy the fruits of your labours — now is the time to start exploring!